Ice Cream Queen: Interview with Jeni Britton Bauer
The first Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams shop opened 16 years ago in Ohio, but I didn’t have my first taste until around 2013. I was shopping in Atlanta, it was Ndali Estate Vanilla Bean topped with Salty Graham “Gravel” and Extra-Bitter Hot Fudge Sauce, and I waited in line at least half an hour to get it. A couple years later, on a birthday trip to Charleston, I tried Savannah Buttermint. When my husband called from the bed and breakfast down the street to tell me that, thanks to an errant walnut fragment on his salad, he was entering the anaphylactic phase of his nut allergy, I told him I would be right there—as soon as I finished my ice cream. It’s good ice cream, ok? And the man never leaves home without his epiPen.
You’ll be glad to know that later, once the ice cream became available locally in specialty stores, I settled down a bit. (Although there was that one time I made homemade blackberry cobbler for a baby shower and picked up three pints of Jeni’s from Caviar and Bananas to accompany it. The fact that it melted in our broken garage freezer didn’t stop me from pouring the liquid pints on top of each slice I passed out that night, first to the horror, hesitation, and, finally, delight of shower guests. So I suppose I’m not completely recovered.)
I recently had the chance to meet up with the “Jeni” behind the ice cream empire. When she found out her famous artisan ice creams would be sold in Publix supermarkets, Jeni Britton Bauer set out to bring the good news to the southeast by offering free scoops from the window of the Jeni’s ice cream truck, and her first stop was Greenville. Her name recognition is undeniable, and still she stood outside shaking hands and graciously accepting lots of compliments. (A person who makes ice cream for a living is very popular. You’d have thought people were meeting Ghandi.)
I for one remained entirely calm. I’d heard Jeni was kind, but still her warmth surprised me. On this particular day, her hair was blonde with the slightest pink hue, loosely pulled back like swirled cotton candy. While I stood back, wondering whether her hair was intentionally reminiscent of a dessert and why I wanted to taste it, she smiled and brought me in for a hug. A pioneer in the artisan foods movement, Jeni said she is an admirer of edible magazines, likewise credited with helping return Americans’ way of eating to a pre-industrial era. At once approachable and wise, she shared some of her insights on everything from ice cream flavors to the craft food business. Here are a few of them.
A surprising thing she’s learned about artisan food-making:
You can get a lot better as you grow bigger. It’s really hard to source the best ingredients if you have to rely on the farmers market and distributors. Obviously farmers are great, but it gets even better when you can contract a whole field from a grower, or a whole truck of milk from a dairy farmer, and truly make them your partner in flavor. Then they bring out the very best. The same is true for whiskey distillers, coffee roasters, cake makers, etc.
On her ahead-of-the-trend vision for craft foods:
I remember in the late 70s and 80s and 90s when farmers markets, coffee, natural foods, and artisanal bread rolled through the American business scene and changed everything. In the 1990s I thought that if it happened to bread (and I worked at a pastry shop and bread bakery), then it would happen to every product eventually. I started my first ice cream shop in a farmers market in 1996! But, I also acknowledge the ancestry that led me/us to this point. Change takes a long long time to take shape. And that is true of food and everything else.
How she keeps herself artistically engaged:
Ice cream is a really complex puzzle and I can’t figure it out yet! Most ice cream makers use an ice cream mix and flavoring. It’s the easier, foolproof way. But we chose to make ice cream more like a cheese maker makes cheese — by taking raw milk apart and putting it back together. Instead of stabilizers, emulsifiers, flavorings and so forth, we work with milk proteins to build body and texture. It makes more flavorful ice cream but it is also infinitely more complicated. Which means I am always inspired to find new ways to improve it.
My most important question for her, of course, was when we would have a scoop shop of our very own. She confessed she fell in love with Greenville a few years ago on her first visit and that she’s fighting hard for a location here so she can visit more often. Here’s hoping.
Jeni Britton Bauer is an American ice cream maker and entrepreneur. A pioneer of the artisan ice cream movement, she introduced a modern, ingredient-driven style of ice cream making that has been widely emulated across the world, but never duplicated. Jeni opened her first ice cream shop, Scream, in 1996, then founded Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in 2002.